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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 22:53 GMT
Letting the cat out of the bag
BBC NI's political editor Mark Devenport reviews a busy week for Northern Ireland politics in the House of Commons, where a number of awkward questions provided an embarrasing situation for the Northern Ireland Secretary, Dr John Reid.

If you're not a politician there might seem very little point in asking a question when you already know the answer in advance.

But if you are a Westminster MP you will be well versed in the long and ignoble tradition of "planted questions".

These are questions when ministers collude with their backbenchers to ensure they get an easy ride and are able to make the announcements they want to get on the news.

Normally, these little plots are hatched in the shadows, but during Northern Ireland questions this week a bright light was shone upon them.

Dr John Reid: Put on the spot by opposition MP

The Conservative spokesman Crispin Blunt obtained a letter from John Reid's Parliamentary Private Secretary Gillian Merron, and teed up a pliant backbencher for a pre-cooked parliamentary exchange.

Mr Blunt took delight in reading out the letter to the Commons, much to the embarrassment of the jet lagged Northern Ireland Secretary, who had just returned from America, and the Security Minister Jane Kennedy who had planned to use the planted question to make an announcement on extra funding for the police.

In the confusion, the extra 16m was announced twice.

Planted questions aren't confined to Westminster - they surface at Stormont too.

On one occasion, the Regional Development Minister, Peter Robinson, assured sceptical assembly members that a friendly inquiry from his wife and fellow assembly member Iris was pure coincidence and not a planted question hatched over the family's kitchen table that morning.

At Stormont this week the politicians jousted over the Queen's Golden Jubilee and slapped each other down in a debate over smacking.

Iceberg

Strangely, this is an issue which seems to roughly divide on sectarian lines with nationalists against the physical punishment of children and unionists more inclined to believe that sparing the rod spoils the child.

There are exceptions, though. The loyalist David Ervine has seen enough violence in his lifetime to not want to inflict any more on children.

If the chamber debates are the visible tip of politics here, beneath the surface a veritable iceberg is floating in our direction.

This is the executive's review of public administration which will examine the many layers of government in Northern Ireland, such as the 26 district councils, the five education boards and the four health boards, as well as around 150 public bodies or 'quangoes'.

The review will be conducted by senior civil servants with help from outside consultants and it's being billed as the biggest shake up of local government here in more than 30 years.

The terms of the wide ranging review are still being decided. But cynics are noting that its time scale - more than three years - means no potentially unpopular decisions will be made before the next assembly elections due in May 2003.

Dogfights

The review will also be led by civil servants and will not question the existence of the 11 Stormont departments.

That has already led to criticism from Peter Robinson who told the BBC's Inside Politics programme that we have too many departments and too many assembly members.

But rationalising the government is always easier said than done.

The last boundary review a decade ago recommended the abolition of the tiny Moyle Council, which covers the Glens and the Giant's Causeway.

However the proposal eventually had to be dropped in the face of local opposition. Given that this exercise is meant to more radical, we can expect plenty of dogfights between the vested interests and the reformers before the future shape of Northern Ireland's governmental structures is agreed.

See also:

09 Feb 02 | Northern Ireland
Political dealing as threat remains
08 Feb 02 | Northern Ireland
Government 'must assist' Omagh action
06 Feb 02 | Northern Ireland
Queen 'should address NI assembly'
07 Feb 02 | Northern Ireland
Ministers open Washington bureau
Links to more Northern Ireland stories are at the foot of the page.


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